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Students on Ice arctic youth expedition diary: Final day

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By Zoë Caron

We are nearing the expedition’s end. Our onboard team – or rather, family – begins to collect the pieces and connect the dots between the words and the direct effects of climate change.

Read earlier Students on Ice blog posts.

Lucy Van Oldenbarneveld of CBC Ottawa hosted a five-person “At Issues” panel this evening. I sat alongside, sharing the seats with Canadian Wildlife Service’s Garry Donaldson, arctic biologist Dr. David Gray, geographer Dr. Peter Harrison and Inuit elder David Serkoak. The issue at hand: Polar bear conservation. The audience: 80 inquisitive high school students.

The crux and unspoken truth of most impacts on the Arctic are that they are the result of activities pursued by people who come from away. They are not as a result of the way of the lives of most people of the land. Climate change in particular is largely the result of a culmination of industrial activities, warming the globe and warming the Arctic more than any other region on the planet.

In that vein, what polar bear conservation boils down to is not really the preservation of the bear in of itself, but rather the greater ecosystem that the King of the Arctic has come to represent.

The sometimes-misleading fact of the matter is that polar bear populations are currently fairly stable. And while hunting, land conservation, oil and gas exploration are all issues to consider, it’s climate change that is presenting the deepest threat of them all. The primary challenge for (polar bears/walrus/narwhal etc.) is that thousands of years of evolution have prepared them for life in the sea ice. Climate change is causing that ice cover to change rapidly, in both extent and thickness, ice that polar bears currently depend on.

If climate change goes unattended, we stand to lose 30 to 70 percent of species on this planet. Whether polar bears end up in that category or not, the threat that the polar bear represents is the potential collapse of ecosystems – the full chain of events, the full support system – and that is where the concern lies.

Based on the precautionary principle, and the projections of the IPCC, we are wandering very closely into a closing window of time that we have to significantly – and substantially – act. Acting substantially to slow the rate of human-caused climate change is the number one action we can take to lessen human impacts on wildlife in the Arctic. By working with Inuit, governments, and other necessary partners, we are moving in a direction that will shift our energy production to being from renewable energy resources.

Seeing seven of the great white polar bears this morning, I kneeled low with my chin on the zodiac – marveling, staring, squinting – watching every graceful move of this near perfect being. A cub diligently followed its mother. Another wandered towards us along the shore, just metres from us, just close enough to meet eyes.

I would render it impossible to do anything but sail away from that gaze with a feeling of duty to do all possible to live in pure compatibility of all that is encompassed by the Arctic. And I know for certain there are at least 80 other people that feel the same way.

Students on Ice’s 2010 Arctic Youth Expedition was a ship-based circumpolar adventure aimed at raising awareness about global warming – and inspiring the next generation of polar scientists, researchers and environmentalists. The participants included students from all three Canadian territories (a quarter of the total), eight Canadian provinces and four other countries.

The ship took the students to several arctic sites including Pagnirtung, Diana Island, Digges and Walrus Islands, Cape Dorset and North shore Hudson Strait. It also dropped anchor at one of Canada’s most spectacular parks, Auyuittuq National Park, and the breathtaking Kingnait Fjord.

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